Don’t Just Sit on a Board: Stand for Your Mission

photo (4)By Anne Wallestad, BoardSource president & CEO

I am a true believer in the power of boards. I have seen strong and courageous boards pull organizations away from the brink, and I have seen weak and disengaged boards allow an organization to languish.

At BoardSource, we have spent the past 26 years helping organizations and boards strengthen and improve the way that they provide leadership and governance to their organization. We support boards as they work to recruit more strategically, reflect critically on their performance, and think deeply about the work of the organization.

All of these things are critically important when it comes to the success of your board, but the all-too-often-overlooked reality is that some of the most important work that board members do happens outside the boardroom.

It happens when board members represent their organization’s mission and values to those who don’t know about it, don’t care about it, or are actively working against it. It happens when board members stand up for their missions by engaging in important conversations about the future of our communities. It happens when nonprofit leaders — staff and board together — advocate.

Nonprofit organizations and their leaders have a legal right to advocate, yet far too many avoid engaging in important conversations that have a huge impact on their organizations’ missions. This can happen out of fear, misunderstanding, or lack of information. Whatever the reason — as a nonprofit sector — we are missing a tremendous opportunity to align priorities and policies with strategies that we know will make a difference in our communities. And to fend off changes or attacks that would threaten our ability to serve the public good.

Boards — as the ultimate decision-making body for each nonprofit organization — have an important role to play in breaking through unnecessary barriers and championing the policies and decisions that will better support the communities and causes that their organizations serve. We have a responsibility to identify those opportunities that would enable us to address the root causes and core issues that our missions seek to address. And we have the potential to amplify and accelerate our organization’s impact by tapping into the influence and access that boards bring to an organization through advocacy.

At BoardSource, we have long heralded the important role that board members play in serving as ambassadors and advocates for their missions. But — in the midst of all of our other resources to support strong and effective board leadership — the message about the importance of getting outside the boardroom and standing up for your mission has gotten lost.

That’s why this week, BoardSource — in partnership with our colleagues at the Alliance for Justice, the Campion Foundation, the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the National Council of Nonprofits — is launching the Stand for Your Mission Campaign. This campaign seeks to unleash the full potential of the nonprofit sector to create positive change by challenging nonprofit board members to fully embrace the role that they can play as champions, ambassadors, and advocates for their missions.

Why is this so important? Because in a world where time and resources are limited, advocacy is an opportunity to leverage limited resources to maximum effect.

  • The opportunity to secure and protect critical public funds that support proven program strategies.
  • The opportunity to create policy changes that enable us to do our work better and more efficiently.
  • And the opportunity to solve, rather than mitigate, the most pervasive social problems that we face as a society.

Let’s redefine what strong board leadership means, because it’s about more than what happens within the four walls of your boardroom. It’s about doing what it takes to ensure that your mission can succeed. And advocacy — standing up for your mission — is unquestionably a part of that.

Start a conversation in your boardroom about what board engagement in advocacy could do for your organization. Download the Stand for Your Mission discussion guide.

For more information about the Stand for Your Mission Campaign, visit

This post first appeared in the HuffPost Impact blog.


Executive Succession Planning — Best Practices

photo (4)By Tom Adams, director, Raffa PC

This post is the last in our series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum, taking place on October 9 & 10 in Washington, DC. We hope to see you there!

Most board leaders expect their organizations to have an up-to-date strategic plan. They also expect regular financial reports and an annual financial audit. This is considered good governance. However, when it comes to succession planning, board expectations are more mixed. Why do you think that happens?

Certainly, most board leaders would agree that the ability of their organizations to successfully achieve the desired mission results is directly tied to the effectiveness of leadership. Well-led organizations out perform poorly led organizations by light years. So if leadership is so vital to organizational success, why is it challenging for a board to pay as much attention to succession planning as it does to strategic planning or the finances?

Having worked with hundreds of organizations and their board leaders and executives on succession planning and executive transition, I appreciate the challenges boards face in approaching succession planning and why most organizations don’t have written succession plans.

The following are the obstacles leading boards have overcome in making succession planning a best and ongoing practice and the actions that made that possible:

Succession Planning is Personal and Can Be Risky
For the CEO, a board member inquiring about succession planning may churn up a wide range of responses. Some executives, particularly if she or he has been in the position for a long time, wonder if the board is sending a signal that it’s nearing time for an executive change. Other executives see succession planning as a management responsibility and fear board intrusion to CEO responsibility. Still, other executives are glad the board is being proactive.

The board leadership may hesitate in raising succession planning out of concern of how the executive will receive the inquiry. Sustaining a productive, mutually supportive board–executive relationship is the goal of most boards and executives. So if succession planning might threaten this relationship, or result in rumors among staff and board that undermine leadership, it is easy to postpone or to do the planning superficially with minimal benefit to the organization.

Best practice succession planning reduces this anxiety by focusing succession planning not exclusively on the executive, but broadening to include the management team and the board. Succession planning is about leadership continuity and how to sustain organizational effectiveness over time through attention to leader bench strength and development. More recently, leading organizations are also combining sustainability planning (focused on leadership, strategy/business model, resources and culture) with succession planning. This broader focus on long-term vitality and capacity to advance mission also shifts focus. Best practice succession planning attends to the basics (written, board-approved policies for both planned and unplanned absences or transitions of executive and emergency plans for key managers), unpacking the jobs of the executive and managers and advancing bench strength and leader development, and where appropriate, paying early attention to a departure planned in the next two to four years.

Succession Planning is Hard to Do Without Help
Even when there is a desire to do succession planning, making the time and going deep enough for real organizational benefit is challenging. Some boards may have the expertise to lead and facilitate a thoughtful process in the organization, but most do not have this expertise or expertise with time and detachment from the outcome.

For succession planning to be useful, there needs to be a trust relationship between the board and executive. If trust isn’t there, attention to that is needed before succession planning can begin.

A trusted facilitator from within the organization or an outside consultant experienced in nonprofit succession planning (which is similar but different from private sector succession planning) reduces the above risks and increases the likelihood of maximum benefit to the organization.

For more information, attend Raffa P.C.’s workshop, “Executive Succession: Don’t Leave it To Chance” at BLF, presented by Tom Adams, author of The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide.

Going Up? Toss Out The Elevator Speech; Say What You Feel

10-6-14-photoBy Sharon Danosky, president and founder, Danosky & Associates and Peter Roche, president and founder, IPR, Inc.

This post is one in a series written by individuals presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum, taking place on October 9 & 10 in Washington, DC. We hope you’re planning to join us.

The elevator doors open and you’re face to face with a stranger. After introducing yourselves, the stranger asks, “So, what do you do?” Panic sets in as this is your only opportunity to inform this stranger — this potential donor — about the organization you feel passionately about. Knowing that you only have a few minutes to answer the question, you begin to fumble through your “elevator speech.” As you attempt to describe the good work your organization does and why it’s worthy of even a stranger’s support, the elevator gets closer and closer to the destination floor. Time is running out. As the elevator descends, so does the interest of the stranger. The doors open. A potential donor walks away, unmoved by your elevator speech.

This scenario of the elevator-speech-gone-wrong happens more often than one might think. How can you, a board member, concisely explain the great work your organization does in the amount of time it takes an elevator to make its way up or down a few floors? The answer is, you can’t! But what you can do is prepare yourself for handling this situation with ease.

As a board member, it is extremely crucial to be prepared to answer the tough or even easy questions about your organization, whether you’re at the grocery store, in a meeting with the media, or yes, even riding in an elevator. Potential donors, as well as the community-at-large, who inquire about your organization want to be floored by your delivery. Will you be able to take that opportunity to position the organization in the best possible light?

Personally, I have grown to dislike the whole premise of the elevator speech. I find that when board members ask for the organization’s elevator speech what they really want is a way to better understand and be able to communicate the salient and compelling facts about the nonprofit they are serving. And, if they have to ask what to say, then, clearly, we need to do a better job of communicating our focus.

A better approach to a canned, prepared speech is to develop key messages that speak to your board members’ personal interests in the organization and its mission. The salient and compelling facts about your organization are now embedded into their souls. Their conversations with strangers become easy, relevant, and even enjoyable.

My colleague, Peter Roche, and I believe this so strongly that we have developed a methodology that helps both management and volunteers distill their messages from a lay person’s perspective and learn how to bring their personal understanding of the organization to the forefront. Board members become comfortable, donors hear interesting information, and perspectives and conversations emerge that are interesting and meaningful.

To learn more about our methodology, join us at “Throw Out the Elevator Speech & Start a Conversation” at the BoardSource Leadership Forum on Thursday, October 9, 2014 at 9:30am. Learn how to create this magic in your own organization. Together, we will delve into the nuts and bolts of preparing your board members to talk to the media on key issues, advocate in a meaningful way to policymakers, or discuss a campaign with a would-be donor.

Celebrating the Difference Between Nonprofits and For-Profits

photo (4)By Jay Angeletti, president, The Angeletti Group, LLC

This post is one in a series written by 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum presenters. There is still time to register for BLF, which is being held October 9 & 10 in Washington, DC.

We all know that a board’s role includes fiduciary and legal oversight, which can be said of the boards of both nonprofit and for-profit organizations. But there are major differences between the two. One is that money travels in different directions. In for-profits, board members get paid for the value and contacts they bring. In nonprofits, board members, who also bring value and contacts, don’t get paid: In fact, they are actually asked to make significant philanthropic gifts to the organizations they serve.

The best boards and board members know this, celebrate it — and relentlessly promote a culture of relationship-building and philanthropy. They recognize this work is as important as the organization’s mission! Unfortunately, not all boards understand this —and choose not to orient themselves in this direction—and, because of this, will never realize their full potential.

While some of these boards and board members don’t believe they can raise significant philanthropic support because they are grassroots or too young or a myriad other reasons, it’s just not true. My colleagues and I are blessed to work with many nonprofits — large and small, newer and established — and we see under-performers and high-performers. It’s all about the rigor and genuine commitment with which the board members approach their development work. For the successful ones, it’s not transactional fundraising; it’s true development work. And the successful organizations produce short-term return on investment and long-term security.

Development work may look like a series of meandering lunches; in fact, it’s genuine relationship building — respectful, serious, substantive, and business-like. And there are no shortcuts. Here are a few facts and tips:

  • Recognize that the average time frame to identify, cultivate, solicit, and receive a major gift commitment is 72 weeks.
  • Identify and work with a portfolio of prospective donors throughout every stage of the philanthropic cycle to ensure that you always have prospects ready to be asked — today and 72 weeks from today.
  • Continually introduce new prospects to your organization.
  • Reinforce a thoughtful, disciplined approach to fundraising.
  • Meet one-on-one with prospects. There is no better way to build relationships. And pick up the phone to schedule meetings. Email is extraordinary — but not the only form of communication.

Many people unfamiliar with philanthropy ask me if it’s difficult to ask someone for a big gift. For the most part, they wonder how anyone could give away so much money. I tell them our country was built on a culture of philanthropy. Colleges and universities, independent schools, hospitals, museums, zoos, churches, social service, and human rights organizations…and many more! I tell them the challenging part about fundraising isn’t asking people for money. By the time you get to the “ask” you already have researched, introduced, educated, and cultivated. After all that, if your organization is changing lives, gifts — and big ones — will follow!

Jay Angeletti is a development and organizational design specialist with 30+ years of experience that includes working with Choate School, Yale, Penn, Drew University, and New York – Presbyterian Hospital. In 2007, he founded The Angeletti Group, LLC — a firm composed of 20 colleagues who work exclusively with nonprofit client partners.

Leading Deliberate Change

photo (4)By Katha Kissman, interim leader, organizational development consultant, BoardSource senior governance consultant

This post in one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum on October 9 & 10 in Washington, DC. There’s still time to register!

I’m so looking forward to my two presentations at the upcoming BLF! While they are on two different topics — a report on my upcoming book, The Journey to High-Performance Governance (co-authored with Beth Gazley of Indiana University-Bloomington for the ASAE Foundation/Jossey-Bass), and “Creating Effective Transitions With Interim Leadership” — they are both about change.

While change for nonprofit organizations seems to have become the new normal, leading deliberate change that is effective requires certain leadership attributes and commitments, including the ability to maintain a big-picture focus while managing process. As leaders, what can we do to help make change work for us rather than allowing change to be about reaction? Dr. Lowell Levin said, “Whoever defines the problem controls the range of solutions.” Today, the “definers” need to be informed before posing the definition. This requires recognition, visioning, planning and implementation, and closing the loop.

CEOS report that up to 75 percent of their organizational change efforts do not yield the promised results. These change efforts fail to produce what had been hoped for, yet always produce a stream of unintended and unhelpful consequences. Leaders end up managing the impact of unwanted effects rather than the planned results that didn’t materialize. Instead of enjoying the fruits of a redesigned production unit, the leader must manage the hostility and broken relationships created by the redesign. Instead of glorying in the new efficiencies produced by restructuring, the leader must face a burned out and demoralized group of survivors. Instead of basking in a soaring stock price after a merger, leaders must scramble frantically to get people to work together peaceably, let alone effectively. (Wheatley & Kellner-Rogers)

To best prepare for deliberate change, I encourage you to familiarize yourself with the following steps of the change process.

Recognition. Awareness and knowledge of what needs to change and why are vital first steps in enabling change to occur. Typically, the phrase “organizational change” is about a significant change in the organization, such as reorganization or adding a major new product or service. This is in contrast to smaller changes, such as adopting a new computer procedure. In analyzing the type of change that may be necessary, think of the following: Will it be an organization-wide or a subsystem change? Will it be transformational or Incremental? Will it be remedial or developmental?

Visioning. Wheatley advises: “Change can occur in every meeting, task force, or event in your organization. This experiment requires a discipline of asking certain questions. Each question opens up an inquiry. We have learned that if people conscientiously ask these questions, they keep focused on critical issues such as levels of participation, commitment, and diversity of perspectives:

  1. Who else needs to be here?
  2. What just happened?
  3. Can we talk?
  4. Who are we now?”

Seek the involvement of others and LISTEN. Seek those who have specific understanding of a given situation and have the knowledge, skills, and authority to enable them to think around a topic and explore new ideas. Create a forum for imagining and brainstorming: What are our overarching goals? What will success look like? What might be possible barriers to change?

Be honest about assessing where you are. What type of/number of staff are required to institute and manage the proposed change. As Jim Collins reminds us, do you have the right people on the bus? Will specific training, new equipment, or other resources be needed? Who are the relevant constituents that should be involved? Have you mapped out your internal and external communications to ensure understanding at all levels?

Planning and Implementation. What are your goals, the objectives under each goal, and the needed tasks under each objective? Who will lead each task? By when will each task (or milestones) concluded? Establish a “go” date and regular reporting (both formal and informal). Determine in advance how you will hold people accountable.

Close the Loop. Critically important is recognizing the “end” of the change — actively celebrate it organization-wide and reward success.

Choose to be invigorated by the possibilities of change. As Deepak Chopra states: “The highest levels of performance come to people who are centered, intuitive, creative, and reflective — people who know to see a problem as an opportunity.”

Katha Kissman has a 20-year career leading several nonprofit organizations, is a senior governance consultant for BoardSource, author of two of its publications, and since 2001, has provided interim leadership and nonprofit organizational development consulting for a wide variety of organizations. Effective July 1, 2014 she became the president & CEO of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Foundation in Fort Pierce, Florida.



Dr. Phil and the Board/CEO Marriage

photo (4)By Joseph Morrison, Jr., founder and CEO, Raiser Sharp Consulting

This post is one in a series written by leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum taking place on October 9 & 10 in Washington, DC. There’s still time to register!

One of the most important, yet often overlooked, relationships within a nonprofit organization is the one between the board and the chief executive. This relationship is very much like a marriage. And, like any marriage, it takes hard work and commitment for it to be healthy and strong.

Because this relationship is much like a marriage, I turned to Dr. Phil for some advice. After being happily married for more than 33 years, Dr. Phil shared some of his thoughts about what makes a marriage work. I’ve been married twice myself, and I can attest to the validity of his suggestions. I’ve also been involved with the nonprofit sector for more than 30 years, and I understand how this advice relates to the nonprofit world. Below is Dr. Phil’s marriage advice, followed by my comments on how these things relate to the board/chief executive relationship:

1) “The quality of a relationship is a function of the extent to which it is built on a solid underlying friendship and meets the needs of the two people involved.” The board and chief executive are more than simply employer and employee. True, this is one role they play, but nonprofits tend to thrive when the relationship is more than that — when there is a mutual friendship; when both parties like and respect each other; when they get along well. When both parties are fulfilled and are receiving a mutual benefit, the relationship will be of a much higher quality, and most likely be more productive.

2) “You get what you give. When you give better, you get better.” A healthy relationship, no matter who it is between, works better when both parties are willing to give something of themselves — their time, their talent, their treasure; sometimes all three. The board/chief Executive relationship is really no different. Invest in it without thought of gain, and you will definitely reap what you sow.

3) “If you put your relationship in a win/lose situation, it will be a lose/lose situation.” There is absolutely no reason for a board and its chief executive to ever create anything but a win/win situation. The relationship always works best when both parties win! Don’t even consider any other option. The way to ensure this happens is to always put the mission of the organization first — over personalities, over finances, over strategies. After all, it’s really why you are part of the nonprofit organization to begin with!

4) “Forget whether you’re right or wrong. The question is: Is what you’re doing working or not working?” So many board/chief executive relationships fail because of pride. When you can take pride out of the equation, the solutions tend to become so much more evident. Concentrate more on whether you are being effective, and leave the right or wrong label hanging on the door knob outside.

5) “There is no right or wrong way to fix a relationship. Find your own way that works. But recognize when it’s not working and be honest when it needs fixing.” I will admit that there are some basic principles that need to be considered when trying to fix a broken board/chief executive relationship — things like trust and communication should always be a part of the conversation. That being said, there are many paths to the same destination. What works for someone else, may not work for you. The important thing is to recognize when things are not going well, then take action to improve them!

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Governance 3.0: Pushing Past Our Organizational Walls

photo (4)By Richard Mittenthal, president & CEO, TCC Group

This post is one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum on October 9 & 10 in Washington, DC. There’s still time to register!

At TCC Group, I have spent several decades helping nonprofits build the capacity of their boards. I am looking forward to sharing our current explorations in this area at the upcoming BLF gathering by suggesting that, to contribute much-needed expertise and provide maximum support, boards need to enhance their “relational capacity.”

For the purposes of our discussion, I am defining relational capacity as “the ability of a nonprofit organization to clearly understand its niche and strategic positioning within a larger ecosystem; appreciate the positioning and value of other stakeholders; instill trust in, and network with, other key actors and institutions; and promote and engage in healthy relationships that function within and in support of a larger system.”

There is a new set of exciting and challenging capacity needs related directly to the notion that it is no longer enough to be organizationally sound without a connection to a larger “ecosystem.” This ecosystem can be a regional community, based in the geographic setting in which a nonprofit sits, or it can be unconfined by geographic boundaries with its connections based in its shared commitment to a particular cause or the social change it seeks to achieve (e.g., the LGBT, environmental, or breast cancer research communities, etc.).

While the need to enhance performance in organizational functions, including staffing, program, technology, and other areas, in light of this larger environment has been acknowledged, governance has been mostly absent from the discussion. We believe that capacity building for boards needs to evolve to more fully incorporate organizations in relation to their larger environments.

At TCC Group, we have begun to identify and examine the development of the skills and behaviors boards must consider to adapt to this new perspective. At my upcoming session at BLF, we will provide an opportunity to explore the implications inherent in a nonprofit’s need to acquire relational capacity in its governance, and the ways in which board leadership can contribute to encouraging systematic acquisition of these capacities to enable the organization to work more effectively in collaboration with other social sector actors.

We have identified the following capacities, grouped in three broad areas, to factor more prominently in our capacity-building work with board leadership:

  • Capacity to truly understand the ecosystem
  • Capacity to engage with an ever-evolving ecosystem
  • Capacity to adapt organizational structure relative to the ecosystem

The mere understanding of the interrelationship of nonprofits within an ecosystem and other capacity frameworks, ideas, theories, and concepts does not necessarily translate into effective capacity building. Grounded in a wealth of experience and armed with new technologies and information, TCC Group is exploring new and more sophisticated methods of helping nonprofit boards, their organizations, and ecosystems actualize their performance. The following methods have begun to guide our work with boards, and session participants will gain familiarity and experiential knowledge of each throughout the course of the BLF session:

  • Creating effective consumers of capacity building
  • Including change management support
  • Analyzing the organization’s place in the ecosystem
  • Engaging diversity, equity and inclusion.
  • Creating targeted diagnosis and prioritized entry to enact change

I will be using a session structure that relies on a combination of sharing TCC’s latest learnings, listening to the ways in which a panel of nonprofit CEOs and board chairs are considering ways to acquire greater relational capacity, and interactive discussion. We aim to provide conference attendees with the groundwork to embrace the basics of Board Capacity Building 3.0.

TCC Group, a national consulting firm that works exclusively in the social sector. Over the years, Richard Mittenthal has advised many nonprofit organizations and grantmaking foundations on issues of governance.


Clenched Fists? Open Hands?

photo (4)By Ryan D. Jacobs, CEO, Ten Thousand Villages Canada

This post is one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum on October 9 & 10 in Washington, DC. There’s still time to register!

More than a decade ago, a mentor of mine shared an image that has stuck with me ever since. It was inspired by a book by Henri Nouwen titled With Open Hands:

I have come to believe that we approach each and every situation — and life in general — somewhere along a continuum between clenched fists and open hands.

Being in the clenched fists state equates to close-mindedness — an unwillingness to embrace (or sometimes even explore) new possibilities. It’s a defensive stance, the expectation and assumption that almost everything that comes one’s way is an attack on one’s position or values.

In sharp contrast, operating from an open hands perspective represents a willingness to engage with other people and with ideas that might challenge you to move beyond your comfort zone. It requires humility and empathy, so you can see things from the perspective of others.

I think we all know individuals who generally approach life from either one of these states. You quickly learn that you need to “walk on eggshells” around some people, because anything you say can be interpreted as a challenge or a threat. Even the most innocuous suggestion can set off a defensive rant.

On the other hand, there are those who are able to approach even the most difficult situations with openness and level-headedness. They don’t jump to conclusions, and they take the time to really listen to ideas and opinions — even ones that might require them to rethink their own position.

The reality is we’ve all been in both places. We’ve all had days when everything seems to go wrong, and when no one can say or do anything right. It’s easy to reach a point where all you want to do is shut everyone and everything out.

But after, say, spending a lazy Saturday afternoon curled up on the couch with a good book, you’re likely to have the patience and composure of a saint, even when your kids spill melted red freezie all over your white chair. (This recently happened to me … the spilling part, but alas, not the patience part!)

As a leader in a nonprofit organization — whether serving on staff or on the board of directors — it’s important not to close yourself off to people and ideas. We all come at the challenges that face our organizations with different histories, assumptions, and perspectives. But if we’re all working toward the same goal, then we need to respect each other enough to at least hear each other out with openness.

Then, and only then, can we truly tap into the potential that exists within the talented individuals who are working to help our organization achieve its mission.

Questions for reflection:

  1. Have you closed your hands to the world, and to those around you? Are you protecting yourself against something negative, but losing access to all that is positive in the process? Or are you keeping an open posture, not just toward those who are easy to be around, but also toward those who push your buttons?
  2. What is your default state? Clenched fists or open hands?

Ryan Jacobs is presenting a session titled “It Takes a Village: The Intersection of Board and Staff Roles in a Nonprofit Turnaround.”


Leadership & Assessment: Measurement Matters

tumblr_m9z3f7mpVU1qe8ttfo1_400By Melissa Sines, accreditation manager, Standards for Excellence Institute

This post in one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum on October 9 & 10 in Washington, DC. It’s not too late to register!

Lately, a couple of really great, tongue-in-cheek blogs have emerged that poke fun at working in the nonprofit sector. If you’re missing “When you Work at a Nonprofit” and “Nonprofit with Balls,” check them out. Whether you’re a board member, an executive director, or a staffer, you’re likely to come across a post that will remind you of the way your organization operates and make you laugh. And as far as I’m concerned, laughing is better than suffering a mental breakdown! The image above, titled “When your boss asks you to do her job for you and you still only get paid $12 an hour,” made me laugh.

When the laughter fades, however, it’s back to the really hard work we have to do to keep our organizations running efficiently, effectively, transparently, and with accountability. I’ve been working at the Standards for Excellence Institute for three and a half years now and can assure you that organizations that invest resources in assessing and evaluating their operations are stronger and operate at a higher level than organizations that do not. And, organizations that take steps to honestly assess their leaders’ leadership ability, strategic planning, and visioning are on an entirely different playing field than others.

Leaders should be smart about the benchmarks they’re using to measure their performance and that of their organization. Benchmarking against standards that demand deep evaluation and continuous improvement will help leaders think through the priorities and goals they set throughout the organization.

Some benchmarks are easy: Do you file your Form 990 on time? Does the board review budget to actual information at least quarterly? Do your employees receive regular evaluations?

Others aren’t so easy to check off a list:

  • In what kinds of community-wide strategic partnerships are you engaging, and to what end?
  • Are you developing bench strength among your staff by providing relevant professional development opportunities and meaningful evaluation?
  • Is your organization inclusive of the community you serve, and if not, what needs to change to ensure that it is?
  • How do you evaluate your sources of income and determine which grants, contributions, or partnerships to pursue?
  • Are you able to communicate effectively and control your message in today’s fast-paced social web environment?
  • What policy issues are affecting your ability to meet your mission, and what (if any) positions are you taking on them?

These aren’t the kind of questions you can hand off to the administrative assistant, no matter how talented or efficient she or he may be. These questions engage leadership at all levels of the organization in a collective pursuit of excellence in management, governance, and operations.

A coherent, systems-based form of assessment is important because it allows you to identify areas for improvement and then focus your efforts around what matters most — achieving your mission. And, next time your employees or volunteers visit the nonprofit funny pages, they’ll be able to laugh at the way things used to be.

The Standards for Excellence session at this year’s BLF will introduce organizational leaders to a proven set of benchmarks that will help them assess their capacity, leadership, and accountability. Participants will utilize an assessment tool to measure the strength of their leadership and organization and have the opportunity to ask questions about how these benchmarks are implemented in different types and sizes of nonprofits. I encourage you to register for BLF today to access this and many other sessions that help you practice mindful leadership by design.

Melissa Sines works with the Standards for Excellence Institute as their accreditation manager. She co-founded the Frederick Giving Project, serves on the Frederick County Nonprofit Summit Planning Committee, the ABAG Regional Giving Circle Connector Committee, the Celebrate Frederick In the Street Committee, and the Leadership Frederick County Leaders on Loan Advisory Committee. Melissa is most happy when organizing people and projects to make good things happen.


An Executive Transition Tale

photo (4)By Marla Bobowick, CEO, Bobowick Consulting; David Martin, managing partner, Sterling Martin Associates; and Virginia O’Brien Record, client partner, Sterling Martin Associates

From determining an organization’s mission and purpose to securing financial resources so that the organization can fulfill that mission, nonprofit boards of directors are tasked with numerous jobs. While all of these tasks are critical to keeping the nonprofit successful, hiring the CEO may be the single most important decision that a nonprofit board makes.

Selecting the ideal CEO is a multi-step process, but it doesn’t end with the offer letter. The board is also responsible for ensuring a smooth transition so the new CEO and his or her team can get back to working the mission of your organization. Planning for a transition on the front end, following a deliberate process to engage the “perfect candidate,” and ensuring success on the back end can make all the difference. And yet,

  • many organizations don’t have a succession plan, and if they do, most board members don’t know where it is
  • few board members have been through a nonprofit executive search
  • search processes are often shrouded in secrecy because of concerns about confidentiality
  • despite the best of intentions, onboarding is often neglected because it comes at the tail end of a long process when it really is part of the transition continuum

In our BLF session, “An Executive Transition Tale: Succession Planning, Executive Search, Onboarding,” we will address the above issues and examine the story line of an executive transition from both the chief executive’s and the board’s perspective. We’ll discover that while these parties share a common goal — the success of the organization — they each have different concerns, goals, and expectations; understanding where the other side is coming from smooths out the transition process. We will explore major milestones along the way, demystify the executive search process, identify common pitfalls, and share pearls of wisdom.

And just as Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” was transformed by his apparitions — think Ghost of Leaders Past, Ghost of Leaders Present, and Ghost of Leaders Yet to Come — we will come to believe in the powers of a well-formulated succession plan, a deliberative executive search process, and a thorough and strategic onboarding process. Putting all of these pieces together is the key to a truly successful executive transition.

Through audience participation and roundtable discussions, Virginia will present the nuts and bolts of developing a sound succession plan; David will offer guidance to those in the midst of or about to embark on an executive transformation so that it, too, has a happy ending; and Marla will discuss the importance of having a solid onboarding process in place, thus closing the executive transition loop.

Hope to see you on October 9.

Marla Bobowick is an experienced nonprofit professional with a history of creative problem solving and extensive experience with board governance, strategy, research, and publishing. Prior to founding Bobowick Consulting, Marla was vice president of products at BoardSource, where she oversaw publications, online products, and research.

David Martin is managing partner of Sterling Martin Associates, an executive search firm that focuses on recruiting nonprofit leaders, primarily at the C-suite level. He has three decades of professional experience in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, and, since founding Sterling Martin Associates in 2006, has led nearly 100 searches for U.S.-based nonprofit organizations. 

Virginia Record, a client partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Sterling Martin Associates, has strong subject matter expertise in the overall nonprofit management arena, having spent more than 35 years in nonprofit leadership positions, primarily in higher education and healthcare and focused on development and public affairs. She also has served on dozens of nonprofit boards of directors and has consulted with nonprofit organizations on matters ranging from governance and resource development to marketing and communications.




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